Revisiting the “war on Christmas”

So I’ve been looking over past posts, particularly those addressing what has come to be known as the “war on Christmas“. These include the following:

It seems like it’s been “all quiet on the front” for the past few years. Particularly in the last couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken center stage. A “war on Christmas” pales in comparison to a virus spreading across the globe. Either way, “the war on Christmas” is or was quite palpably a ridiculous load of bovine excrement.

As I read back through both those posts and the above-linked Wikipedia article, it’s shocking to read some of the things that have happened. It’s nearly two decades old, but this incident is particularly egregious:

In 2005, when the city of Boston labeled their official decorated tree as a holiday tree, the Nova Scotian tree farmer who donated the tree responded that he would rather have put the tree in a wood chipper than have it named a “holiday” tree.[12]

The tree farmer misses the point, and could use a remedial history lesson in the tradition of tree decoration and its origins. Before the Christians adopted tree decoration as part of their Christmas holiday, pagans decorated trees in celebration of Yule, the pagan winter solstice festival (Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide; Rätsch and Müller-Ebeling, 2006). Christmas itself was the Christian co-opting/takeover of many winter pagan festivals, most notably Saturnalia. So many Christians are vocal about “putting the Christ back in Christmas”. This is quite ironic since, centuries ago, it was the Christians who forcibly inserted their Christ and God into pagan celebrations.

It is likely that December 25 does not match up with the actual birthday of Jesus in the modern calendar. Indeed, some still celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the Julian calendar which is January 7 of the modern Gregorian calendar. Isaac Newton may well have been on to something. Newton theorized that December 25 was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice. The idea behind that would be for the Christians would “take over” the previously pagan holiday festivals.

So, since we now know the pagans both celebrated the winter solstice and decorated trees before the Christians did, it makes no sense to call out the city of Boston for daring to call it a “holiday tree”. I mean, yeah, the farmer is certainly entitled to his/her own opinion, or to express regret over donating the tree after it’s called a “holiday tree”. The reason for calling it a “holiday tree” is to include everyone who celebrates any winter holiday, whether it is Christmas, Boxing Day, Festivus, Hanukkah, Yule, Grav-mass, Kwanzaa, Yalda, Dongzhi Festival, Quaid-e-Azam’s Day, Chalica, Soyal, Pancha Ganapati, or any others of which I am not aware and have thus omitted. Calling it a “Christmas tree” or even a “Yule tree” is potentially exclusionary against those who observe other holidays.

And then there are cases where radical Christians apply their pressure to corporations, particularly retail advertisers:

  • In 2005, Walmart was criticized by the Catholic League for avoiding the word “Christmas” in any of their marketing efforts.[13] The company had downplayed the term “Christmas” in much of its advertising for several years.[79] This caused some backlash among the public, prompting some groups to pass around petitions and threaten boycotts against the company, as well as several other prominent retailers that practiced similar obscurations of the holiday.[13] In 2006, in response to the public outcry, Walmart announced that they were amending their policy and would be using “Christmas” rather than “holiday”. Among the changes, they noted that the former “Holiday Shop” would become the “Christmas Shop”, and that there would be a “countin’ down the days to Christmas” feature.[13]

The most cynical interpretation of this backlash is “Damnit, our ancestors fought long and hard to steal Christmas from the pagans, and you want them to think it’s okay to call it Yule or Saturnalia again?” This is obviously not what the Catholic League had in mind. Looking at history, though, it’s easy to see it that way. In fact, being well read on the history of winter solstice celebrations and a long-time atheist makes it hard not to see it that way.

Worse, quoting from the article referenced as #13 above (Tricia Bishop’s article from 2006):

“In the past, our ad copy used wording from vendors’ descriptions, and that tended to use the word ‘holiday,'” Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively said in an e-mail. “This year, to be more accurate, we describe Christmas-specific items, such as Christmas trees, with the word ‘Christmas.'”

“Christmas-specific items” as if nobody who celebrates any other winter solstice holiday would decorate a tree. I’d like to think Walgreens has come around on this; it may be time to switch preferred drugstores otherwise. Moving down the Wikipedia list:

  • In 2005, Target Corporation was criticized by the American Family Association for their decision not to use the term “Christmas” in any of their in-store, online, or print advertising.[80]

Unfortunately Target gave in back in 2005 only a couple of weeks into the holiday season. To be fair, not mentioning a specific holiday is something I would expect Target to do (more so than its chief competitor, Walmart). Even more unfortunate is that people would boycott a retailer over this. Omitting “Christmas” is, at its root, really just an attempt to be more inclusive.

Is that really what Christianity is about, hounding people/companies and making a stink if they don’t openly bow to the Christian world view, even at the potential perceived exclusion of others? I’d like to think otherwise. I realize the Catholic League and American Family Association (AFA) don’t represent the views of all Christians. (Or, in the case of the former, even all Catholics.) But it’s hard not to be judged by the company one keeps. This kind of thing is one reason I left Christianity decades ago.

And the hits just kept on coming:

  • On 11 November 2009, the AFA called for a “limited two-month boycott” of Gap, Inc. over what they claimed was the “company’s censorship of the word ‘Christmas.'”[88] In an advertising campaign launched by Gap on 12 November, the term “Christmas” was both spoken and printed on their website at least once, and a television ad entitled “Go Ho Ho” featured lyrics such as “Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go Solstice” and “whatever holiday you wanna-kah”.[89] On 17 November, AFA responded to this campaign by condemning the ads for references to the “pagan holiday” of solstice, and declined to call off the boycott.[90] On 24 November, the AFA ended the boycott, after learning from Gap’s corporate vice president of communications that the company planned to launch a new commercial with a “very strong Christmas theme”.[91]

It’s not enough that the ads basically have to be “Christmas Christmas Christmas Christmas blah blah blah Christmas Christmas” to not piss off the AFA. No, apparently, lest you risk an AFA-led boycott, you can’t even mention “the ‘pagan holiday’ of solstice”! At its root, solstice is a natural phenomenon. It only makes sense that regardless of religion or beliefs, a society of any size would organize a festival around it.

Again, the boycott was only called off after Gap, Inc. launched a new commercial that put Christmas front and center. Yes, Christmas, a winter solstice celebration timed deliberately to co-opt and overshadow pagan festivals occurring at about the same time, “stealing” them from the pagans and other non-believers.

And of course there’s the Starbucks controversy from 2015 which I’ve already written about. I wish I had known about the others sooner and/or already had my blog going back when they had happened. But the theme is the same: include everyone by not mentioning specific holidays, and sooner or later fundamentalist Christian groups will call you out on it; mention “the ‘pagan holiday’ of solstice” specifically, and you’re almost guaranteed the wrath of the AFA when they see it.

As I usually do this time of year, I wish everyone happy holidays, regardless of what holidays those might be. Even if it’s Yule a.k.a. the winter solstice.

Shawn versus the McRib

I don’t often write about something as mundane as fast food. However, the McRib is, to some, more than just typical fast food.

For various reasons I have more or less just let the McRib advertising and fanaticism fly over my head every time it’s come around. I never bought and ate one, figuring I wasn’t missing much. For that matter I have humorously and somewhat derisively called it the “McFib” at various points in the past.

Well, with McDonald’s announcing for the fourth time that this is the “McRib Farewell Tour” (with the previous three being in 2005, 2006, and 2007) curiosity finally got the better of me and today, in need of both a late lunch and realizing I might run out of opportunities to see what all the fuss is or was about, I made my way over to the McDonald’s at 5414 Airline Drive in Houston, Texas, and ordered my first (and quite possibly my last and only) McRib. (With fries and a Coke, of course.)

Now I haven’t blogged a whole lot about my eating habits here, so I’ll go ahead and fill in a couple of things. My usual order at McDonald’s, on the rare occasions I decide to eat there, is a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets meal. (I’ve been known to order the comparable meal from Jack in the Box as well, so I’m definitely not brand loyal to the Golden Arches even when it comes to my chicken nugget fix.) When I do order sandwiches (hamburgers or otherwise) I usually do not order pickles. In the case of the McRib, however, you have the meat, the bun, the sauce, the onions, and the pickles. So for better or worse I ordered my McRib as it comes, pickles and all.

So you’re likely asking now, “Enough with the lead-in, Shawn, how was the darn thing?”

It was okay, about what I would expect for a fast food take on a rib sandwich. The pickles were barely noticeable, not the distraction I was expecting them to become. But overall, the McRib is an offering I can take or leave. I’m not hooked on it or anxiously awaiting its return by any means. I’m perfectly content with my usual McNuggets meal the next time I find myself at the Golden Arches. (Interesting sidenote here: both the McRib and Chicken McNuggets were created by the same McDonald’s executive chef, René Arend, two years apart.)

I can say with confidence that I still don’t get why there was so much hype around the McRib every time it would seasonally appear on the McDonald’s menu as a limited time offer.

By contrast, I am a huge devotee of Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza, and was horrified when that item went off the menu for what we (the broader group of Mexican Pizza fans) thought was going to be permanently. Quoting Wikipedia:

On November 5, 2020, Taco Bell removed the Mexican Pizza from its menu, saying that its paperboard packaging had a significant environmental impact.[2] In response, Krish Jagirdar, a vegetarian Indian American, started a petition for Taco Bell to reinstate the Mexican Pizza. The petition attracted more than 170,000 signatures.[1]

And surprisingly, in response, Taco Bell brought it back, with demand definitively outpacing supply for its original 2022 May return. Taco Bell actually had to take the Mexican Pizza back off the menu again due to supply issues, but it returned in 2022 September and is sticking around for good this time.

There’s not much information on whether or not the Mexican Pizza was originally rolled out as a limited time offer. However, I can say that many such permanent menu items do start out as limited time offerings; if memory serves correctly, this was the case for both Taco Bell’s Fritos® Burrito and 7-Layer Burrito (both of which have unfortunately been discontinued). In at least two countries (Germany and Luxembourg) the McRib is still available year-round. Per the McDonald’s website FAQ entry “Why isn’t the McRib® sold year-round?”:

We like to change up our menu throughout the year by offering some limited time only items, like our Shamrock Shake® in the spring. The timing of the McRib return can vary from year-to-year, but most recently, it debuts in the fall.

Yet there are no other limited-time offerings with remotely the fame or fan following of the McRib. I hadn’t even heard of the Shamrock Shake until I read this FAQ entry, or if I had it wasn’t memorable. I have to wonder if the PR mouthpiece of McDonald’s said this just to provide some kind of plausible reason.

Honestly, given some of the things that have happened in the fast food business, I’m glad we still have McNuggets.